Over the Columbus Day holiday some local schoolgirls opted not to take a day off. They came away from a workshop having learned the most important lesson of their lives.
Most people are oblivious to the fact that on any main street in any city, there's a good chance you'll pass by a person who is a victim of human trafficking, a crime that spans all demographics. A workshop Monday at the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany aimed to heighten awareness.
Debbie Fowler is founder and president of EYES WIDE OPEN NENY, Inc. in Saratoga Springs. "The most vulnerable about this topic is our youth. And the more that they're made aware of what's happening in our area, that they be able to reach out to those — they're probably right there in their own schools."
Dave Lucas : "Is this something you'd find like it's not really on a lot of kids' radar?"
"I don't think it is. I don't think it's on their radar at all. It's fun and games right now. Boyfriends, people being interested in you, and I don't think they even are looking to see who else is maybe hurting or going through something. It's a big topic, and some they don't even want to discuss it."
Discussion groups tackled a variety of topics including signs and some of the red flags that someone may be under the spell of a human trafficker.
Workshop attendee Ylonka Schuyler is a Maria College student, studying to become an R.N. "It was very interesting to learn more detail about the human trafficking and having a little bit of a background in history of my mother going through it, and me finding out more details as opposed to how more of it is being seen and not being reported, and I think I just wanted to educate myself more, so when, maybe in the nursing field, just keeping an eye on patients or anybody that may be a sign of being trafficked by someone else."
Worksheets distributed to participants warn students to look for peers with bruises, girls who are having a hard time fitting in or keep to themselves as well as girls who are missing a lot of school and won't look you in the eye when talking with you. Again, Debbie Fowler: "It's just knowing the signs that somebody might be lurking outside the school. It might be when you go to the mall. It might be just kids hangin' out with a bunch of other kids, and that's where it most likely would be something that they need to have their eyes open for. No to be tricked and lured. And usually with the young girls it's somebody paying attention to them, somebody older, that's really exciting, and they start to fall in love with somebody. It needs to be questioned and they would need to watch out for each other when they're outside of the school."
Sounds like what happened to Jasmine Grace: "By the time I was 19 I was at risk, just because I'd gotten into a relationship with a guy that promised me everything and promised to love me and give me attention and a family and everything that a girl naturally desires, but sadly it was at a price. And so I was forced into the commercial sex trade, and under his grip, and he became my trafficker for five years. And the reason why I didn't just leave: it's not that simple to walk away; it's because he used a lot of things like manipulation and threats and violence and fear to keep me trapped in that situation."
Grace today is director of Boston-based Bags of Hope Ministries. She has shared her story at the U.S Commission on Civil Rights in New Hampshire and just recently at the United Nations in New York. "I believe it definitely takes me being transparent and authentic, sharing my story of survival, to help raise awareness and educate everybody about what sex trafficking and human trafficking is and how its happening here in America."
Students who missed the sunny, warm holiday to participate in the workshop found it more than worthwhile. Here's a sample: "We know that people all over are vulnerable to this... I always thought that it was just more global, and I never thought it was in our own communities, and so it definitely did change my perception that its happening all around us, it could be happening to someone that we know and we don't even know it... Like, I don't think it would ever happen to me, but, you know, there are a lot of vulnerable people and it's just, they just got taken advantage of... It's definitely scarey to think about, and I think that we need people to be more aware of it because some people, they don't even want to here about it, but they need to change that mindset... We can work together to really improve the situations and the lives of these people who are being taken advantage of."
Grace wants everyone to be aware: Traffickers can be lone individuals or members of syndicated criminal networks. "I think prevention is huge, and education and letting girls know that this happens, and that prostitution isn't always a choice. You I think our culture and society thinks that women in prostitution chose to be there. But really, no little girl dreams of becoming a prostitute, and never mind a drug addict. And so educating and raising awareness that this is happening and there's traffickers out there, pimps that are out there that are looking for young, vulnerable girls and boys to take advantage of is a reality in our world."